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Understanding the Gang Violence and Instability in Haiti

Professor Rosa Freedman

Professor Freedman joined the University of Reading as the inaugural Chair of Law, Conflict and Global Development and the Director of the Global Development Division, having previously taught at Birmingham Law School and Queen Mary University of London. She is a Research Fellow at the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. Rosa holds various advisory positions, including being a member of the UN Secretary-General's Civil Society Advisory Board on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse.

Professor Nicolas Lemay-Hebert

Professor Lemay-Hebert joined the Australian National University (ANU) in 2019. Previously Nicolas worked as an invited professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal and senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He graduated with his PhD in international relations from Sciences Po Paris (Institute for Political Studies in Paris) in 2010.

Understanding the Gang Violence and Instability in Haiti

Over recent months the gang violence in Haiti has spread across the country with disastrous consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, with many fleeing their homes without any possessions or even clothing. Millions of people across the country require food aid, which is increasingly difficult to deliver in areas under gang control. The prime minister has resigned and the government has all but been replaced in an attempt to restore some form of stability in the short-term, and to find a path forward for Haiti beyond that time. However, any meaningful and lasting stability, success and prosperity will require a genuine and ongoing commitment from regional neighbours and the international community to support and enable Haitian solutions for Haitian problems. Yet support for Haitians to govern over their affairs, to determine who rules over them, to solve their problems, to implement their right as a people of self-determination, has been denied time and again for centuries.

Haiti is a Caribbean country located on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic to the east. A resource-rich country, Haiti once produced half of the world’s coffee and about forty per cent of its sugar cane. It has beautiful beaches, stunning views, vibrant art and music, and a rich heritage and culture. It ought to be a prime tourist destination, and some cruises land at Labadee to explore its five secluded and peaceful beaches. Despite this, Haiti is the poorest country in the Latin American and Caribbean region and one of the poorest countries in the world. It frequently experiences seismic upheavals, disasters, violence and/or political instability. To understand what is currently happening in the country requires an understanding of the country’s rich and complex history, including its transformative role in and leadership of decolonisation around the world, and crucially the ways in which the international community has time and again interfered in Haitian politics and affairs.

On 1st January 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines announced the birth of the new country of Haiti.  The Haitian revolution started in 1791 when André Rigaud led slaves in revolt against France. In 1802 Toussaint Louverture declared independence but Haiti was swiftly invaded once again by Napoleon’s forces led by Charles Leclerc. It took a further two years before Haiti secured independence, becoming the first Black sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere, and only the second country – after the USA – to defeat colonial rule. This was a pivotal moment for Haiti and also for world history. The defeat of France as the colonial power began the decolonisation processes in the region, and then later around the world. Over the decades following Haiti’s independence, the country supported Simon Bolivar and his efforts to end slavery in nearby countries. Many of Haiti’s regional neighbours continue to revere Haiti today because they credit it with their own freedom.

Haiti’s revolution and independence were also transformative because it became the first country to be ruled over by former slaves. Columbus landed in Haiti in 1492, which was inhabited by the Taíno and Arawakan people. France then took over that part of the Island, renaming it Saint Domingue and building plantations. Most of the indigenous population was killed by armed forces or European diseases early into the country being colonised, so to supply the plantation system, French colonialists forcibly brought 800,000 Africans to the country as slaves. By the time of Haiti’s revolution, most of the population were slaves descended from Black Africans (approximately half a million people), along with 30,000 colonialists and 25,000 free people. After independence, those former slaves ruled over themselves and swiftly became the first country in the world to permanently abolish slavery.

Unsurprisingly, these events were not well-received by the European colonialists. France insisted that Haiti pay reparations for every slave they freed in the revolution. France considered all 500,000 Haitians to be their property and demanded money for the loss of those slaves. Over many decades Haiti paid reparations of tens of billions of dollars. As such, the resource-rich country was impoverished by that debt from the outset. Haiti was unable to invest her money into things like healthcare, education, or other state infrastructure that is crucial for development, stability and prosperity. At the same time, other countries were reluctant to accept Haiti as their equal, viewing it as a slave colony and a reactionary nation, and since Haiti’s independence, the international community has constantly interfered in her sovereign affairs.

International interventions over the past 100 years have largely been instigated, supported or led by the United States of America or by the United Nations. The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, claiming that it did so because of political instability in the country. In reality, that occupation was a new form of imperialism, which included American forces imposing a new form of slavery in parts of the country. Later, during the Cold War, the United States supported the brutal dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier because he called himself “anti-communist”. Duvalier and his son’s tyrannical rule lasted nearly three decades, during which time they slaughtered, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of Haitians and ruled with a reign of terror. More recently, during the 1990s, international actors backed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide against a military coup, but in 2004 those same actors flew Aristide out of Haiti after mass civil unrest and anti-government protests. There swiftly followed a series of United Nations interventions in the forms of peacekeeping and stabilisation missions.

It is against this history that the current gang violence and political uprisings must be understood. The constant interference in Haiti’s political affairs, the poverty caused by Haiti’s sovereign debt to France, and the weak state apparatus, are all significant factors contributing to the instability and power vacuums in Haiti. The weak or corrupt governments, which sometimes include officials who do not even live in the country, lack the power, money or will to implement effective changes in society. From the military coup in the 1990s until 2017 the country was not allowed to have its armed forces, and the new one only has emerging expertise, experience and training.  Corruption is rife, particularly amongst the rich elites who control much of the country’s resources, underselling them to private international actors for personal profits. The gangs often are armed by acting under the orders of the government, or the rich elites, or international actors, or all three. At the same time, the gangs claim to be fighting for the people, using populist narratives to encourage uprisings that will place power into their hands.

None of what is happening today is new. It all has roots in Haiti’s complex and difficult history. The first gangs trace their roots back to the brutal Tontons Macoutes that were created by the Duvaliers to carry out their brutal subjugation of the population. The current gangs trace their roots to gangs formed during later periods of political instability, under the authority of rulers such as President Aristide and President Michel Martelly. The current gangs all have links with the rich elites and government officials, but over recent months and years, the gangs seem better armed and less willing to work for or with those ruling classes. Gang leaders, such as former police officer Jimmy “BBQ” Cherizier and Gabriel Jean-Pierre, seem to have set aside their rivalries to jointly call for changes to Haiti’s government and governance. Those actions and calls were at least part of why Ariel Henry resigned as prime minister, having not been physically allowed to return to Haiti.

CARICOM, consisting of Haiti’s neighbours and allies, has called for a transitional council to govern Haiti until free and fair elections can take place. The parameters of that task force, its membership and mandate, and the way in which it has been created do not radically – or perhaps even sufficiently – depart from previous attempts to address issues within Haiti. It is not clear that the transitional council will be an effective interim government, and no concrete proposals are being made for supporting Haitians to self-determine politically. There are still some calling for an international task force to intervene, this time Kenya is being proposed to lead that international interference despite Kenya’s police and armed forces not speaking Creole, French or Spanish, and not knowing or understanding the landscape and context within Haiti. There needs to be resistance to yet another international intervention that will contribute to further perpetuating the power vacuums that neo-colonialism has already created. What Haiti needs is support for its state apparatus, including police and military, rather than the imposition of forces from elsewhere. What Haiti needs is to allow Haitians to elect who governs over them rather than having corrupt or weak governments imposed from the outside. What Haiti needs is Haitian solutions for Haitian problems. Only then can and will these cycles be broken.

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